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Let's start from what I know as a rule: Bisyllabic adjectives normally have their comparative and superlative forms by putting more and the most before the adjective itself. There are some exceptions to this, namely adjectives ending in -y and, to some extent, bisyllabic adjectives ending in -le (humble), in -er (clever), in -ow (narrow), others like quiet, polite, and so on.

Handsome seems to be an adjective which does not have anything in common with the ones I listed before, and yet I remember finding handsomer in some written text. So I started looking through grammar books and dictionaries, and in the end I came up with OALD which states "Handsome (handsomer, handsomest) HELP : more handsome and most handsome are more common."

Why is that? Is it a regional version? Is it true for handsome only, or should we also include other adjectives ending in -some (for example, fearsome, loathsome, tiresome)? Thank you for your help.

  • 2
    It's worth pointing out that handsome is different from your other -some words, because, unlike those other three examples, handsome as nothing to do the hands. It could be that, because we don't say words like "fearsomer" or "tiresomer", more handsome sounds normaller than handsomer. However, as I've just illustrated, this idiosyncrasy isn't necessarily constrained to words ending with -some, because words like normal don't add an -er, either: more normal is more correct. – J.R. Feb 25 '13 at 1:54
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That "rule" is a very crude approximation of what actually happens.

For most 2-syllable adjectives, either form (more/most or -er/est) is at least "credible" to most if not all speakers, but for any specific word the relative frequency of one may be slightly or significantly greater.

You can add extra "general principles". For instance, two-syllable adjectives ending with –y and –ow, readily take the –er/–est endings, but those with –le and –er characteristically don't for some speakers.

Finally, there are even a few acceptable 3-syllable forms - unlikeliest and unhappier, for example. The un- prefix seems to favour "special dispensation to buck the basic rule", but with apparently 1330 instances in print for almightiest I think we have to accept that one as "credible". With no discernable "extra principle" - it's just a "one-off" that doesn't seem to conform to any rule or exempting principle.

Bear in mind that for any given pair of native speakers it's quite possible they will disagree on the acceptability of certain -er/-est forms.


In the specific case of handsomer,more handsome, as you'll see from that link, usage has changed dramatically over the past century. The latter, more "generic" form is now actually the most common, but C19 usage was dominated by handsomer. What this shows is that people are gradually moving towards implementing the simple rules more consistently, but it's a slow process. Nevertheless, on average we're becoming more likely to favour more/most, and unlikelier to use forms like that

As this link shows, even though I'm presumably unassailable in having used more common above, a substantial minority would have been perfectly happy with commoner not so long ago.


I don't think the average "learner" really needs to know that some people still find handsomer acceptable (most don't, and you'd never be criticised for saying more handsome, so just do that anyway). I suggest using the more/most forms for all 2-syllable adjectives except where the second syllable ends in /i/ (easy, happy, silly), or the second vowel is a neutral schwa (clever, humble). And I'd call quiet a single-syllable "triphthong", which for me explains why quieter/quietest are okay. But if in doubt, just use more/most.

  • I appreciate your point concerning the "individual preference" of native speakers towards one form or another of comparative, but are you saying that according to most people humbler or narrower would sound less correct or frequent than more humble and more narrow? Or that cleverer is to be avoided in favour of more clever? – Paola Feb 25 '13 at 2:27
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    Paola: Personally, I'd be inclined to avoid cleverer, and use more clever instead, simply because the former is "tongue-twistinger" :^) However, the choice between narrower and more narrow could be decided by a coin toss – although narrower seems more widely used. – J.R. Feb 25 '13 at 3:07
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    I think you're still asking for certainty and fixed rules, but they simply don't exist. Actually, in recent decades more humble/nimble really have become more common, but narrower (and to a lesser extent, cleverer) are holding out against the prevailing trend. I'm certainly not suggesting you should particularly "avoid" anything on the basis of any of these rules and associated tweaks. But you'd rarely be criticised for using more/most if you did that whenever you had the slightest doubt. – FumbleFingers Feb 25 '13 at 3:09
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    @Fumble: This isn't the first time I've been cleverer than the majority ;^) – J.R. Feb 25 '13 at 3:22
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    @J.R: This is ELL, not ELU, so I don't think it's appropriate to identify and dissect every tendency that might help a learner know whether the -er/-est form is likely to be acceptable for any given word. Probably none of the rules are "absolute", and there are simply too many of them anyway. I'll try to think of a succinct "rule of thumb" that will help people avoid too many "questionable" usages. – FumbleFingers Feb 25 '13 at 16:30
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If the adjectives have two syllables there are two possibilities -
comparison forms with -er/est or with more, most. Grammars have some rules that are not so simple. They also state that there are double forms.

People don't carry a grammar under their arm. When they have to use comparison forms of two-syllable adjectives like common or often they don't consult the grammar, they use what they like. That's why there are double forms. When in doubt you should consult a dictionary as Oald or others.

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This question has already been answered handsomely, but I want to address one of the other comments.

Handsome IS directly related to the hands- ladies want to put their hands on a handsome man and everyone would love to get their hands on a handsome amount of cash or a handsome car that handles well.

But don't take it from me, here's the Oxford English Dictionary:

handsome

/ˈhans(ə)m/

adjective, adverb, & noun. lme.

[ORIGIN: from hand noun + -some1.]

A. adjective.

  1. ‣†a Easy to handle, deal with, or use in any way. lme–l16. ‣b Handy, convenient, suitable. Now rare exc. dial. m16.

  2. Of an action, speech, agent, etc.: apt, skilled, clever. Now chiefly US. m16.

Henry Fielding He determined to quit her, if he could but find a handsome pretence.

  1. Orig. (of conduct, action, dress, etc.), fitting, proper, becoming. Now (only of conduct or action), generous, magnanimous. l16.

Tarkington George..was doing..a handsome thing in taking a risky job for..his aunt.

  1. Now chiefly of a sum of money, a fortune, etc.: considerable; generous, ample. l16.

C. S. Forester He had seen to it that the tip was handsome without being extravagant. J. Gross They offered serious writers..handsome rates of pay.

  1. Of fine, impressive, or stately appearance; (esp. of a man) good-looking, attractive. l16.

A. S. Neill I saw some handsome lads and some pretty girls on that campus. N. Monsarrat Her face,..beautiful when young, markedly handsome in old age, betrayed nothing of her feelings. A. Munro The apartment and office are in a handsome old brick house.

B. adverb. = handsomely. Now rare exc. as below. lme. handsome is as handsome does one is judged by behaviour not appearance. high, wide, and handsome: see high adverb.

C. noun. A handsome person. Used chiefly as a form of address. colloq. e20.

E. Waugh Be a sport, handsome: no one's seen anything but you.

Derivatives:

■ handsomeish adjective (rare) somewhat handsome m18.

■ handsomely adverb (a) in a handsome manner;(b) (now only Nautical) carefully, gradually, without haste:m16.

■ handsomeness noun m16.

  • Please use quote formatting (> at the start of each quoted paragraph) and bring over the italics and other formatting of the original. – Nathan Tuggy Oct 7 '16 at 4:04

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